When Rocky Beat The Champs

In 1968, the final year before divisional play, the Detroit Tigers won 103 games and the American League pennant, finishing 12 games ahead of the Baltimore Orioles. Denny McLain, baseball’s last 30-game winner, won both the MVP and Cy Young Award that season.

That year, the New York Yankees finished fifth, four games over .500. Despite the disparity in talent and the standings, the teams played a memorable four-game series in the Bronx that August, a series highlighted by outfielder Rocky Colavito’s lone career victory. In fact, the victory by a non-pitcher was the last of the 20th Century.

It began Friday night, August 23, a twi-night doubleheader at Yankee Stadium. In the first game, New York’s Stan Bahnsen outdueled Earl Wilson, 2-1. Tommy Tresh hit a two-run homer for the Yankees; Wilson accounted for Detroit’s only run with a solo homer.

The second game wound up a 3-3 tie, called after 19 innings and five hours, four minutes, due to curfew. Yankee outfielder Roy White tied the game with a two-run homer in the eighth, and the teams then battled through 11 scoreless innings. Lindy McDaniel pitched seven perfect innings in relief for the Yanks.

In The Stands
(I know, I was there, sitting in the left field upper deck at Yankee Stadium along with my mother, father and brother. We got home around 3 that morning, and our neighbor was playing the French horn when we pulled in the driveway. My father wasn’t too happy about that.)

The Yankees and the Tigers were right back on the field for a Saturday afternoon game, and White hit another two-run homer, this one in the first, to give the Bombers all the runs they needed in a 2-1 victory. Mel Stottlemyre, who would win 20 games that year, beat Denny McLain, dropping the right-hander’s record to 25-5.

On a broiling hot Sunday afternoon in New York, the Tigers and Yankees squared off in a doubleheader, necessitated by the 19-inning tie game. According to baseball rules at that time, teams needed to replay suspended games in their entirety rather than resume at the point play was stopped.

In the first game, the Tigers bolted to a 5-0 lead in the top of the fourth inning. With his bullpen exhausted from the Friday night marathon, Yankee manager Ralph Houk called on Colavito, a lifelong slugging outfielder, who played primarily with the Cleveland Indians and Tigers. Colavito had thrown three scoreless innings in 1958 with Cleveland, but this was his first appearance on the mound in 10 years.

Yankees Rally for The Rock
And while Rocky threw 2 2/3 innings against the Tigers, allowing just one hit, the Yankees rallied. With back-to-back home runs by Bill Robinson and Bobby Cox fueling a five-run sixth they took a 6-5 lead. Colavito, pictured left on the cover of Time in the late ’50s, walked that inning and later scored the winning run on a base hit by catcher Jake Gibbs. Dooley Womack and McDaniel finished up with three shutout innings and the Yanks won, 6-5, giving Colavito and the Yankees the victory.

The Yankees rallied once again to beat southpaw Mickey Lolich and the Tigers 5-4 on a two-run, fourth inning single by Charley Smith to complete the improbable four-game sweep. All four games were decided by one run. Colavito, playing right-field, homered in the third to tie the score at 3-3.

That October, In the 1968 World Series, the Tigers rallied from a 3-1 deficit to beat the defending champion St. Louis Cardinals and capture their first title in 23 years. Lolich won three games in that Series, beating Bob Gibson in the decisive seventh game. The win gave Tiger Hall of Fame outfielder Al Kaline his only World Series ring.

Bronx native Rocco Domenico Colavito, Jr., would hit two more home runs in 1968 and then retire. He finished his career with 374 home runs, belting 40 or more in three different seasons. In 1959, playing for Cleveland, he hit four home runs in a single game against the Baltimore Orioles. In 1962, playing for the Tigers, Rocky had seven hits in a 22-inning 9-7 loss to the Yankees, the longest game in Yankee history.

Rocky Colavito never made another mound appearance after that game against the Tigers. His lifetime pitching statistics show a 1-0 record and an 0.00 ERA, allowing no runs and just one hit in 5 2/3 innings.


2 Comments on “When Rocky Beat The Champs”

  1. Stephen Rybacki says:

    I was at the Saturday game with my mother, my grandmother and my grandfather as a 9 year old boy, sitting down the thrid base line behind the tarp in the 5th row. Great game and a great memory!

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